NFL Nation: Bob McNair

Observed and heard in the locker room after the Houston Texans' 25-13 victory over Baltimore:
  • O'Brien
    When they walked out of the meeting, Texans receivers Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins joked that they thought Bill O'Brien was going to flip the podium over. His pregame speech was stirring. "If you wasn't ready to play before that, after the speech it really had your juices flowing," Johnson said. "... You have to do whatever you have to do to get the team going. I think what he said, he hit it right on the head. I just think that what he said needed to be said. I think a lot of people, because of the situation we went through, losing players and our quarterbacks and stuff like that, really didn't give us a chance to win today. We went out and proved a lot of people wrong." Count me among them. During the week, I picked the Ravens to win 14-3.
  • J.J. Watt arrived at his postgame news conference wearing a red Christmas sweater with a pair of black reindeer on it. Before the game, Watt chatted with former NBA great Dikembe Mutombo about the finger wag that Mutombo did after blocked shots and Watt does after batted passes. Watt offered an impression of Mutombo then said he sounded like the cookie monster. He also noted what a large man Mutombo, who stands at 7-foot-2, is. "I told him, I gotta walk away from you bro; you're killing my confidence before the game," Watt said.
  • Watt and Johnson were the last two players to leave the locker room. Watt congratulated Johnson and shook his hand as he left, and Johnson returned the sentiment. Johnson made career catch No. 1,000 on Sunday, and Watt became the franchise leader in sacks.
  • A beaming Texans owner Bob McNair said Sunday's game was the biggest win of the season. "Our defense just dominated to such an extent. It's unbelievable," he said. "... They made their offense totally ineffective."

Swat (Dikembe Mutombo) meets Watt. #BALvsHOU (David H. Philip/AP)

A photo posted by @nfl on

Observed and heard in the locker room after the Houston Texans' 23-17 win against the Buffalo Bills.
  • Texans owner Bob McNair couldn't believe his eyes when he saw J.J. Watt run back an interception 80 yards for a touchdown. "He's worth every cent, he's worth every cent," McNair said of the defensive end he awarded a $100 million contract to this offseason. "I hope he doesn't come in tomorrow and ask for a raise."
  • Hopkins
    The celebration from DeAndre Hopkins that incurred a 15-yard penalty involved his dropping to the ground with the ball, lying in a half circle and acting like a dead fish after catching a 35-yard touchdown pass. "It's highly known in soccer, so the soccer fans know what it was," Hopkins said. It's apparently illegal in the NFL. Hopkins didn't know that when he did it, and got an earful from coach Bill O'Brien during the game.
  • Cornerback Darryl Morris filled in as the Texans' third corner with A.J. Bouye out with a groin injury and made the game-sealing interception. As that final pass from Bills quarterback EJ Manuel fluttered through the air toward him, he had one thought: "Don't drop it."
  • Cornerback Kareem Jackson can be seen in the frame running behind Watt as he returned the interception 80 yards, making sure nobody got to him. "I was just trying to get in the way. The big fella has some wheels on him, so I figured if I got in the way, then he would take it to the house."

Texans Mailbag: Why not trade down?

February, 1, 2014
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Six months ago, many of us thought there was a decent chance the Texans would be preparing for the first Super Bowl in franchise history this week.

Instead, we continue to discuss what they might do with the top pick a little more than three months from now.

Let's get to it.

A few days ago a reader posed this question to me:

It's a reasonable thing to ask, and I promised an answer in a blog post. (As an aside, I'll do this more frequently during the offseason. Thoughtful questions that require more than 140-character responses might get posts.)

When Texans owner Bob McNair fired former head coach Gary Kubiak, part of his decision was influenced by Kubiak's seeming indecision with his quarterbacks.

The night before being fired, Kubiak had pulled Keenum from the Texans' loss in Jacksonville to try and win with Matt Schaub. It was the second time Kubiak had pulled Keenum during a game after declaring the first-year player his starter. Keenum had struggled in both of those games and wasn't seeming to get better, but Kubiak's waffling only seemed to make things worse. Upon firing Kubiak, McNair declared that Wade Phillips would be interim head coach and Keenum would start the rest of the season.

"We need to find out whether Case is capable of being a starter or whether he's capable of being a backup," McNair said that day. "And the way you find that out is by playing him."

What McNair saw in the next game, before a thumb injury ended his season, was a quarterback who had trouble adjusting to pressure and who tried to use his legs to get out of trouble far too often. Sure, when his improvisation succeeded the results were impressive, but those times were the exception. It wasn't that Keenum didn't know what to do. Both he and Phillips said he did. Keenum just didn't react in the ways he knew he should. He made the wrong decision repeatedly.

Keenum
Keenum
In my post about the Texans' offensive line, I noted that Keenum averaged about 3.7 seconds from snap to sack, which is a decent amount of time. One commenter suggested that time was because Keenum bought time for himself while under pressure. The problem is, if you're buying time and then getting sacked anyway, that's not good either. It's part of why he led the NFL in yards lost per sack last season, losing an average of 10.58 yards per sack.

Maybe Keenum stopped trusting himself. Maybe with the right coaches and a competition, he'll recover and improve. Sometimes a quarterback improves later in his career, though few are given the chance for that kind of growth these days.

The problem is you don't know. He's not there yet, at the point where he has established himself as a capable starting NFL quarterback. Sure, there would be unknowns with a drafted rookie, too. But in that case, the same thing that worked for Keenum in October could go against him now. The less a quarterback has had a chance to show, the greater his potential upside.
MINNEAPOLIS -- When the Minnesota Vikings hired Brad Childress as their head coach in 2006, infamously keeping him in the Twin Cities before he could get on a plane to interview for the Green Bay Packers' head-coaching position, they were taking their chances on an offensive coordinator from a successful team (Philadelphia) who had not been a NFL head coach or a playcaller for the Eagles. That search wrapped up six days after Vikings ownership fired Mike Tice on the final day of the season.

When the Vikings removed the interim tag from Leslie Frazier's title before their final game of the 2010 season, they were taking their chances on a defensive coordinator who'd done good work for them and managed to win three of the final six games in a chaotic year marked by the collapse of the Metrodome. But Frazier, like the man he replaced in the middle of the season, had not been a head coach.

Those two searches were relatively short -- the first likely because of the Wilf family's inexperience as NFL owners, the second because the Vikings were rewarding a candidate who had interviewed for a handful of jobs elsewhere and who had kept the team together during a trying season. The Vikings' current search for a head coach, though, has general manager Rick Spielman criss-crossing the country, talking to coaching candidates. As ESPN NFL insider Adam Schefter reported on Saturday and as we discussed on Friday, the Vikings will interview San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman on Saturday.

That would make Roman the sixth known candidate the Vikings have talked to. And all of those -- Seattle offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, Arizona defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, Cleveland defensive coordinator Ray Horton, Cincinnati defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and Roman -- are current coordinators who have never been NFL head coaches beyond an interim level.

After the Vikings fired Frazier on Dec. 30, Spielman outlined his process by talking about the research he'd already done on previous head coaches. NFL coaches can come from 13 different backgrounds, he said, and none had proven to be more successful than any other.

"That can be anything from head coaches that are currently offensive coordinators, former head coaches that are currently defensive coordinators, defensive coordinators [and] offensive coordinators without head-coaching experiences, college head coaches with and without NFL coaching experience," Spielman said. "So there is a long list of areas that you can look for in a head coach."

We'll say this with the disclaimer that the Vikings could certainly be talking to candidates whose names haven't been publicized, but the list so far has zeroed in, almost exclusively, on coordinators who haven't been permanent head coaches yet. As ESPN's John Clayton pointed out this week, the Houston Texans decided to go away from a coordinator because of how many have failed at the NFL level -- 60 percent, in Texans owner Bob McNair's estimation.

If the Vikings have found the coordinator pool to contain the best candidates, great. Spielman has too much riding on this hire -- his reputation as a GM and possibly his future with the team -- not to turn over every stone, and he has gone through this search in his typical diligent manner.

Roman certainly has the wares to be conducting an extensive interview tour this year, too; he's helped the 49ers get to the NFC title game and the Super Bowl with two different quarterbacks, and has designed one of the league's most diverse offenses behind quarterback Colin Kaepernick and a power running game. The Vikings could certainly use someone with that kind of offensive know-how, especially if he's able to develop a young quarterback.

But it's worth pointing out the considerable risk in the coordinator pool, and the Vikings should be well-acquainted with that, based on the past two coaches they've hired (and fired). The search, at least so far and at least with the names that have become public, hasn't included as much diversity in coaching backgrounds as we thought it could. We'll have to presume that's because Spielman is finding the right people in a class of coordinators that's historically been fraught with risk.

"There is no specific [type of coach we have to have]: offense, defense, college coach, high school coach, whatever," Spielman said on Dec. 30. "It is a coach that we feel is the best fit for our organization."
HOUSTON -- After introducing his new head coach, Houston Texans owner Bob McNair made a couple of interesting, though logical, declarations about his team's quarterback situation.

He said the team is open to trading out of the No. 1 overall selection.

He also said this:

"If we wound up with a young quarterback, we'd probably bring in a veteran so we don't have to depend on that rookie. That's tough putting a rookie in there and expecting them to be able to play right off the bat. There've been a couple of them that have done it, but a number of them didn't do so well. I think having that veteran presence is important."

That would be a really smart move for a team that thinks it's very close to being one of the NFL's elite franchises. Bill O'Brien wasn't hired for a rebuilding project.

The process of selecting players will be similar to what it was last season, with general manager Rick Smith collaborating with the head coach.

"With a quarterback, there's more risk with picking a quarterback No. 1," McNair said.

I think trading out of the No. 1 overall pick would be difficult this season, unless a team falls in love with a specific player. But even if Houston can't move down, McNair could get an elite defensive player and take a capable quarterback in the second round.

No matter what round you take that quarterback, it is not smart to go all-in with him as your only option. Drafts always come with a risk, and if the Texans are truly on the cusp, they can't afford another quarterback situation like that of 2013.

Barnwell: Texans vacancy most attractive

December, 31, 2013
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As the Texans work to make Bill O'Brien their next head coach, Bill Barnwell of Grantland.com assesses the best available head coaching jobs.

There's been discussion about whether the Lions job or the Texans job is the best. Barnwell goes with Houston:
"The Texans were the worst team in football, but they've got the first pick in the draft, at least two of the 50 best players in the league (Duane Brown and J.J. Watt), and enough of a defensive core to suggest that their turnaround could be a quick one. They've also been relatively patient with their coaches, as owner Bob McNair will be hiring just his third head coach in the franchise's 13-year existence."

Barnwell does think the Lions have the most talented roster among the teams with coaching vacancies. He doesn't necessarily think that's a positive, though. Having so many positions set means that the new coach won't be able to impact the roster as he sees fit.

He ranks Tampa Bay third, Washington fourth, Minnesota fifth and Cleveland last.

Can Texans mimic Chiefs' turnaround?

December, 12, 2013
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Our Jeffri Chadiha thinks so.

SportsNation

Can the Texans mimic the Chiefs' turnaround?

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Discuss (Total votes: 399)

In fact, Chadiha thinks the Texans will improve on the turnaround that the Chiefs made. Last season, Kansas City went 2-14 and earned the top pick in the draft. They've gone 10-3 so far this season. Kansas City's defense is far superior to its offense, but two of the major reasons for that turnaround were the additions of quarterback Alex Smith, general manager John Dorsey and head coach Andy Reid.

On the Texans, Chadiha writes: "The Texans don't have to worry about hiring a general manager, because Rick Smith is one of the best young executives in the business. They also have far more talent than Kansas City had at the end of last season, which is why they might be able to put their disastrous season -- now 2-11, with 11 consecutive defeats -- behind them quickly."

Chadiha likes the thought of former Bears coach Lovie Smith or Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt as the Texans' next coach. He also echoed my thoughts from a week ago, that no decision Texans owner Bob McNair has made in his time as the Texans owner has been bigger than this one.

Give it a read, and offer your thoughts.
HOUSTON -- Right now the Texans' Gary Kubiak has a 61-62 career record as a head coach. He is in his eighth season with Houston, having been hired in 2006.

Kubiak
Team owner Bob McNair has shown patience with Kubiak, who's had two 6-10 seasons -- his first year with the team and his fifth. Until this year, when the Texans embarked on a franchise-record losing streak that currently sits at nine, Kubiak had made steady improvement after the most recent 6-10 season.

This kind of patience doesn't exist anymore. It's been nearly two decades since the last example.

Thanks to Michael Bonzagni of ESPN Stats & Info for poring through the list of longest-tenured coaches for me. Of the 87 men who have at least eight years of experience as an NFL head coach, 24 have a career record under .500 -- including Kubiak.

Among those with at least eight years experience and a losing record, Kubiak is one of four who spent that whole time with one team. The other three all returned for a ninth year.

John McKay, whose Tampa Bay Buccaneers went 0-14 in his first season, only coached the Bucs to three winning seasons. He had a losing record in his eighth year and went 6-10 in 1984, his final year coaching.

Bart Starr began coaching the Green Bay Packers in 1975 and went 4-10. He only coached two winning teams, one in the strike-shortened 1982 season. That was Starr's eighth season with the Packers and his team made the playoffs. After an 8-8 record in his ninth, he was fired.

Wayne Fontes had four winning seasons with the Detroit Lions from 1988-96. One came in 1995 when the Lions went 10-6 and made the playoffs but lost. Fontes led the Lions to the NFC Championship game in 1991, but his subpar seasons meant he was constantly on the hot seat.
HOUSTON -- Speaking before a group of highly rated high school football prospects Wednesday evening, Houston Texans owner Bob McNair offered a cautionary tale.

"[Aaron] Hernandez, the tight end from New England, all of y'all are familiar with the problems that he got into," McNair said. "We took him off our draft board. We wouldn't even draft him because he had too many examples of violations of these principles that we're talking about."

McNair talked about how the Texans don't tolerate bullies or want them on their team. It was a way for McNair to make the point to the young players before him about living their lives properly and what impact that could have on their careers. And it echoed something McNair said last year for a story I wrote for the Houston Chronicle.

Back then, McNair said the Texans have three deal-breakers when examining a player's character: They don't tolerate men who abuse women, considering them bullies. They don't tolerate habitual drug users, although McNair specified he didn't mean someone who "smoked marijuana." And they don't tolerate someone who rebels against authority.

The Texans have taken calculated risks in their draft history. But it seems Hernandez, who has been charged with first-degree murder, wasn't worth it.
» NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at the one offseason move each team in the AFC South needed to make but didn't.

Houston Texans: They still have time to extend Brian Cushing and Antonio Smith, so I can’t say they regret not having done so yet. I think they will be OK at linebacker. They aren’t going to be eight-deep the way owner Bob McNair naively suggested they should have been last year when injuries thinned the group. They are counting on two college defensive ends converting to outside linebackers (Sam Montgomery and Trevardo Williams). A veteran addition like Daryl Smith or Karlos Dansby could have offered assurances, but such a player could have overstuffed the group.

Indianapolis Colts: Sean Smith got roughly $2 million more over three years in Kansas City than the Colts gave to Greg Toler. Ryan Grigson and Chuck Pagano have made largely solid personnel choices, so they get the benefit of the doubt on Toler at the start. But Smith is roughly 3 inches taller and 20 pounds heavier, and he has been more durable than Toler. I’ll be comparing the two going forward. If not that move, how about Brent Grimes over Darius Butler? Grimes would have been more expensive but could have been a second or third cornerback if he fully recovers from his Achilles injury. I fear they could regret not doing more at cornerback.

Jacksonville Jaguars: For a team that moved on from Derek Cox, Rashean Mathis and Aaron Ross, the Jaguars had a lot of work to do to restock at cornerback. Alan Ball and Marcus Trufant are not good enough veteran answers to surround and supplement three draft picks. Sean Smith is the sort of bigger corner the Jags like and could have upgraded the position. And he’s just 26, so he would have fit the team’s desire to be young. He got a three-year, $16.5 million deal, which is probably a bit rich, and the Jags would have had to go further. But they’ve got a ton of money and could have spent more while still being very fiscally responsible.

Tennessee Titans: The Titans will rush the passer better with some new people and the influence of Gregg Williams. But defensive end Michael Bennett could have been had at a reasonable price and, as a bigger defensive end, he would have been a better addition than Ropati Pitoitua. Bennett went to Seattle for a one-year, $4.8 million deal. The Titans wouldn’t have been as attractive a destination as Seattle, but they could have gotten Bennett with a multiyear deal. Are Pitoitua and fifth-rounder Lavar Edwards enough to boost the pass-rush production and fortify the run-stopping at end?
Foster-SchaubElsa/Getty ImagesMatt Schaub and Arian Foster find frustration again in New England.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Player after player fell back into a common NFL safety net following the Houston Texans' 41-28 loss to the New England Patriots.

We’ve just got to make more plays, they said.

It’s a blanket, clichéd and too-easy solution to a loss like this one, five weeks after a 42-14 drubbing here at Gillette Stadium.

In many ways, the 2012 Texans maxed out, and here they finished at the same stage as last year’s team, an overachieving bunch that lost several key players to injuries and rallied behind a third-string rookie quarterback.

It’s the nature of an NFL player to defend his teammates and to believe his locker room is filled with the ingredients needed to be a championship team.

“We’ve got the guys right here in this room capable of getting the job done,” cornerback Johnathan Joseph said. “We got the job done all year to win 13 ball games. There a lot of teams out there that won three, four ball games. Of course we’re capable of doing it. It’s just about doing it all the time. I have no problem with the people we have here on this team.”

Hopefully, coach Gary Kubiak and general manager Rick Smith will see more need for change than Joseph does. The Patriots aren’t going to come back to the pack in the AFC. Houston has to hunt them down. And with these two losses the Texans simply proved they don’t have enough, in scheme or in personnel, to do so.

To catch and pass the Patriots, they don’t need cosmetic surgery, they need genetic alterations.

On offense, the Texans have developed a power running game that comes out of the zone-blocking scheme and a play-action passing game that plays off of it. But they bog down in the red zone and need a receiving threat or two that can present an option in the end zone. Houston, too, needs to alter a generally conservative mindset. Sunday, it allowed for Matt Schaub, taking a snap from the New England 1-yard line in the fourth quarter with time running out, to throw a quick pass to Andre Johnson short of the end zone that allowed him to be tackled for no gain.

Defensively, the Texans need more quality depth at linebacker and in the secondary to match New England’s variety and depth of weapons. And the Patriots' attack rarely makes mistakes and typically scores a lot.

New England can simply rotate through different pieces on offense to present problems. In the regular-season game, Houston did nice work limiting Wes Welker but got clobbered by Aaron Hernandez. This time Welker turned eight catches into 131 yards while Hernandez was also an issue again.

Houston struggled with the combination of pace and personnel the Patriots weave together.

“The hurry-up, again we weren’t fully prepared for some reason,” said outside linebacker Brooks Reed, who didn’t play in the first matchup because of a groin injury. “It’s extremely hard to get the call in and line up when they are going hurry-up. They’re not going to wait for you. They’ve got plays planned out and one audible and they’ve got their play ready. Whereas we’ve got to get the call from the sideline, get lined up, recognize the formation.

“It takes us a lot more time to get lined up than they do. That’s the challenge and again that’s what kind of got us today. And making plays too, it’s them making plays not just them hurrying up. I think we could have been a little bit more prepared. We knew that was going to happen. We saw it on film, them lining up quick and defenses not being ready. We didn’t think it was going to be us and in some cases today it was.”

And questions about mental toughness will linger in the offseason. At 11-1, they controlled the AFC. They blew a first-round bye and home-field advantage and a chance at a deep run with a 2-4 finish.

Like Joseph, though, Kubiak didn’t talk of change but of staying the course.

And owner Bob McNair didn’t help with his immediate reaction, saying at least three times in his conversation with reporters that the Texans are close. (If you’re that close and you get every officiating break in the game, you should win, shouldn’t you?)

Schaub put up 343 yards in a come-front-behind effort, but was uneven. He has the continued unwavering backing of Kubiak and the franchise.

“I’ve got a ton of confidence in him. I think he’s one of the top quarterbacks in football,” Kubiak said. “You don’t get over that hump unless you’re willing to keep going back there and keep getting yourself in that position. It’s very, very difficult. I do not take anything for granted for where we are tonight; it’s very hard to get there.

“We’re going to continue to push him to a new level as a player. And that’s all of us. But he’s definitely the one leading the way.”

Schaub was asked if he belongs on a list with the quarterbacks who will be playing next weekend -- Colin Kaepernick of the 49ers, Matt Ryan of the Falcons, Joe Flacco of Baltimore and Tom Brady of the Patriots.

Logic at this point says Schaub does not, or he’d have advanced as they did.

“No doubt I belong,” he said. “I think I belong up there with every one of them.”

I don’t think he’s delusional, just well-programmed in what he believes a confident quarterback is supposed to say. I hope when he and his coaches review this game, that is not the conclusion they come to. They have to address the sense of panic that creeps in at moments like the middle of the third quarter, when flushed to his left from the pocket Schaub simply dropped the ball as he ran and had to dive on it for a 9-yard sack.

I’m not sure the panic problem is completely fixable. He can improve still, but he’ll be in his 10th season next year, and that deep into a career most players have become what they will be.

The Texans need to surround him with better players, particularly on the right side of the offensive line and at receiver beyond Johnson, to maximize his chances and theirs.

There is only so much they can do with the roster given salary-cap constraints. While they’ll be looking to chase the Patriots, they’ll also need to hold off Indianapolis in the AFC South, and the Colts have plenty of money to spend as they look to build on a breakout season.

After the playoff loss in Baltimore last season, defensive lineman Antonio Smith and his teammates made a pact to get to the Super Bowl this year.

“This was not an achievement to any of us,” he said of finishing a second season in a row on the road in the divisional round. “It’s the biggest disappointment you can have.”

“It’s always a gut-check, proving the naysayers right.”
Arian Foster Brett Davis/USA TODAY SportsArian Foster became the first running back to break 100 yards in his first three playoff games.
HOUSTON -- Don’t fast-forward too quickly. Wade Phillips won’t. The Houston Texans' defensive coordinator asked for a day before he starts to figure out how to improve on the Texans’ terrible showing in New England five weeks ago.

That’s not unreasonable.

After all, a team with a somewhat-faint pulse sprang back to life at Reliant Stadium on Saturday, smothering the Cincinnati Bengals in a 19-13 victory in the wild-card round of the playoffs that earned the return trip to New England next Sunday afternoon.

“We played dominant defense, we played great, we played inspired,” outside linebacker Brooks Reed said. “It’s good to be firing on all cylinders. We’ve got to get ready to play even a tougher game.”

“We kind of wanted to reset our batteries this week,” center Chris Myers said. “We know what we do best as an offense: Run the ball, pound it and control the line of scrimmage. That’s what we focused in on all week.”

The key numbers that plugged into what Reed and Myers spoke of: The Bengals didn’t convert one of their nine third-down chances and allowed Andy Dalton to hit on less than half his passes for just 127 yards; the Texans gave the ball to Arian Foster 32 times and he gained 140 yards and scored a touchdown while helping his team hold the ball for 38 minutes, 49 seconds.

Houston’s worst-case scenario got better, and at the very least the Texans will have a 2012 season as good as their 2011, which ended with a divisional-round loss in Baltimore.

“It’s been a gut check for this organization through this past month, and the players led the way today and I’m very proud of them,” coach Gary Kubiak said.

A closer look at some key ingredients that got the Bulls on Parade into the divisional round of the playoffs for the second year in a row:

The quarterback’s first playoff game: Matt Schaub threw a really bad pick-six, and there were stretches where the Texans appeared very reluctant to have him try anything that carried even a mild degree of risk.

But he made enough plays to get a "W" in the first playoff game of his career, connecting on 29 of 38 attempts for 262 yards. He looked to Andre Johnson on 21 percent of his throws, a number far better than the 37 percent he forced during the Texans' three recent losses.

It was tight end Owen Daniels who gave the Bengals matchup fits and hurt them the most with nine catches for 91 yards.

The offensive line didn’t only block well for Foster and the run game, but also created time and comfort for Schaub, who wasn’t sacked and was hit only twice, according to the stat crew.

It crushed Schaub to miss last season's playoff run after he suffered a serious foot injury in the middle of the season.

He’s a 1-0 playoff quarterback now.

Foster’s record: No back in NFL history had topped 100 yards in his first three playoff games until Foster pushed into triple digits Saturday. His line did great work, often getting a 1- or 2-yard push before he caught up to his blockers.

“He’s become a fine, fine player -- and it just seems like the bigger it gets, the better Arian gets,” Kubiak said.

[+] EnlargeMatt Schaub
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesNine-year veteran Matt Schaub was a winner in his first playoff game, if not without a pick-six hiccup.
Foster rarely went right, where a rotation at guard (rookies Ben Jones and Brandon Brooks) and tackle (Derek Newton and Ryan Harris) has been an issue, but wasn’t anything the Bengals were able to exploit in this game.

When Foster ran for one final first down that iced the game, Texans owner Bob McNair said he wanted to run out on the field and kiss him.

“A nice little hug would do,” Foster cracked.

Red zone: I waited for the good vibe of the day to get sufficient consideration before I asked Foster about the team’s red zone struggles going unsolved. In reply, he took the nickname he has used for me in our periodic conversations the past few years -- Mr. Positivity -- public.

But it doesn’t take a Negative Nellie to know that one touchdown in four chances like the Texans had against the Bengals won’t suffice at Gillette Stadium. The Texans were actually 2-for-2 scoring touchdowns once they got inside the 20 on Dec. 10 at New England. The thing was, they were already down 28-0 when they finally got there.

Schaub emphasized how the Texans didn’t want to force things when they were assured of makeable field goals from Shayne Graham. But the Patriots' offense burns at a higher temperature than the Bengals', and Houston won’t likely be able to choose to be conservative if it wants a chance to advance to the AFC title game.

“It was our Achilles' heel today,” Foster said. “When you get in the red zone, especially against a team like New England, you have to score touchdowns, you can’t kick field goals, because they like to put up points and they like to put up points in a hurry.

“I’ve got a lot of faith in our defense, but that man behind center over there is a great player. You have to keep him off the field and you have to capitalize any time you get the opportunity.”

A healthy Johnathan Joseph: The team’s top cornerback has been inconsistent this season, at least in part because of groin and hamstring injuries. Phillips said once Joseph was back to practicing full-time, he’d return to form.

That sure seemed like the case against Cincinnati.

Dalton didn’t even throw a ball the direction of A.J. Green, his top receiver, in the first half. He looked for him 11 times in the second half and had one big 45-yard completion. But Green stopped on one route in the middle of the field and Joseph, who was sticky most of the game, grabbed an interception and took it 14 yards to set up Graham’s fourth field goal that boosted the Texans’ point total to 19.

“Physically, I’m probably better than I’ve been all year,” Joseph said.

Joseph and the Bulls on Parade were the first playoff defense to hold an opponent without a third-down conversion since the Bengals did it to the Bills in the 1988 AFC Championship Game.

Success will be defined a lot differently at Gillette Stadium against Tom Brady and the Patriots.

Phillips will soon start pondering just what his guys might try differently given this second chance.

Bill Belichick and Gary KubiakGetty ImagesBill Belichick has steered the Patriots to the top of the AFC, but Gary Kubiak and the Texans are now gunning for the conference's perennial top team.
It’s been a while since the New England Patriots won a Super Bowl, but they remain the standard-bearers in the AFC.

They’ve been to two of the past five Super Bowls, including the most recent one. They’ve been in five of the previous 11 Super Bowls and won three in four years from 2001 to 2004.

For teams looking to become consistent AFC powers, the Patriots are the target. One of those teams, the Houston Texans, is heading to New England for "Monday Night Football."

No matter the result, the Texans will still have at least a one-game lead for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. This could be an AFC Championship Game preview.

Can the Texans overtake the Patriots?

"I think they can," one AFC executive said. "They have the talent, they have the consistency of scheme on both sides of the ball to do it. The wild card is their health, particularly on defense."

"That's going to be a tough one," said Rosevelt Colvin, who played six of his 10 NFL seasons as linebacker with the Patriots and spent a training camp with the Texans. "Patriots are the closest thing to consistency you will find in this era of NFL ball. Two big reasons: Bill Belichick and Tom Brady."

New England’s coach and quarterback have the skins on the wall and the credibility that come with them. That doesn’t mean someone new can’t break through, though only three other teams have represented the AFC in the Super Bowl since the Patriots came to prominence: Oakland once, Indianapolis twice and Pittsburgh three times.

Are the Texans poised to break through?

"Everybody would like to do what they’ve done over a long period of time," Texans coach Gary Kubiak told Houston reporters. "This league’s about consistency. I think I learned a lot about that in my time in San Francisco and Denver. Doing things right all the time.

"We’re trying to become a very consistent organization here and put a consistent product on the field week in and week out and do things the right way. We’re very young in the process, but we have a lot of respect for what they do."

One major similarity: Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Texans owner Bob McNair are widely regarded as two of the best owners in the NFL. They are willing to spend to make things first-class, and they back their coaches.

Let’s look at some other ways the Texans are similar to the Patriots and some ways they are different:

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
AP Photo/Charles KrupaTom Brady's consistent play has made the Patriots annual Super Bowl contenders.
Scheme: The Patriots morph as required, not just season to season but sometimes week to week.

They drafted two high-quality tight ends when they saw Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez available and shifted their offense to be predominantly two-tight. When both missed time because of injury -- Gronkowski won't play Monday -- they easily shifted to three-wide. They’ve been a 3-4 team. They’ve been a 4-3 team.

Belichick adapts to what he has and the circumstances.

The Texans don’t morph.

They’ve updated and improved Kubiak’s offensive system since he took over in 2006, but the principles are the same. The zone-blocking line cuts defenders down, and the back is asked to make one cut and go. They run a ton of play-action and ask quarterback Matt Schaub to roll out and run bootlegs off that. It’s not a common scheme, which makes it a bit tougher for defenses to handle.

Defensively, they struggled to find an identity until they brought in defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. As leader of the defense, he installed his brand of 3-4 and stamped the Texans with a personality they had been lacking. Now they are locked into a defensive system that same way they are locked in on offense.

They are both top-eight rushing teams, but running is less important to New England because its passing game is more straight drop-back and shotgun while the Texans rely on far more play-action.

Leadership: Belichick is the team’s authority, although while the Patriots came to prominence much was made of how he worked in tandem with Scott Pioli in the front office. If they didn’t agree on a player, they would move on to the next one.

Pioli left to become the general manager in Kansas City in 2009. Belichick remains the powerful agenda-setter, but he has resources when he wants them -- including director of player personnel Nick Caserio and senior football adviser Floyd Reese.

Although the Texans have always stayed mum publicly about who has final say, Kubiak was hired first and general manager Rick Smith joined him. League insiders see the Texans as a coach-steered franchise. Kubiak and Smith have an excellent relationship and get good input from front-office personnel, coordinators and assistants.

Kubiak and Belichick have vastly different public personalities. Belichick is gruff and controlling. Kubiak is personable and agreeable.

Belichick wields more power, but the setups for both coaches in their organizations are comparable.

Depth: Belichick once lost Brady in the Patriots opener. He plugged in Matt Cassel and won 11 games.

Overall, New England has done exceedingly well plugging reserves in when needed and getting sufficient production. The Patriots also move guys around with success. We’ve seen them play receiver Troy Brown at corner. Currently, Devin McCourty can line up at cornerback or safety.

Although veterans generally want to stay in their winning atmosphere, the Patriots have not been sentimental about keeping guys. If a player gets too old or too expensive, they’ll let him walk.

The Texans went to the playoffs for the first time in franchise history last season with rookie quarterback T.J. Yates playing because starter Schaub and backup Matt Leinart both got hurt. Outside linebacker Mario Williams was out after five games, and receiver Andre Johnson missed nine. Houston showed off its depth in overcoming the absences.

The team let Williams leave as a free agent, traded inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans and released right tackle Eric Winston in the offseason while fitting other pieces under the cap. They got Schaub and left tackle Duane Brown locked up with long-term contracts before the season kicked off.

Houston is showing off its depth again this season. Inside linebacker Brian Cushing went down after five games, and Tim Dobbins has played well in his place. Brooks Reed missed last week and will be out a few more, and the team has first-rounder Whitney Mercilus to insert into a shuffled linebacker corps.

"Keeping the talent pool full of younger guys that can run that system is key, as well as coaching consistency," Colvin said. "They have a good mix right now."
Gary KubiakGeorge Bridges/Getty ImagesGary Kubiak should be counted among the brightest offensive minds in the league.
HOUSTON -- John Elway saw the wheels turning.

He watched the way his backup and road roommate Gary Kubiak functioned, and knew his playing career was only the start of something.

“He was a student of the game while he was playing,” Elway said. “Gary had visions of what he wanted to do when he was done playing and took advantage of that while he was playing and I think with the background that he’s built up and the success that he’s had in the game, I’m not sure there is a better offensive mind in the game.”

Of course Elway is going to say good things about a close friend. But the Hall of Fame quarterback isn’t going to toss around such high praise lightly either.

Search the league for offensive innovators and you might find Green Bay’s Mike McCarthy, Jim Harbaugh and his coordinator Greg Roman in San Francisco, Washington’s Mike Shanahan, Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg in Philadelphia, San Diego's Norv Turner, Detroit coordinator Scott Linehan, New Orleans’ Sean Payton and his coordinator Pete Carmichael, Carolina coordinator Rob Chudzinski, Cincinnati coordinator Jay Gruden, and even Buffalo’s Chan Gailey.

[+] EnlargeMatt Schaub
Margaret Bowles/AP PhotoGary Kubiak and Matt Schaub have developed a close relationship after six seasons together.
My sense is Kubiak isn’t on most lists. My sense is he should be.

While I visited the Houston Texans' training camp recently, I spoke to the three most important offensive players about their coach. Matt Schaub, Arian Foster and Andre Johnson all spoke of how the Houston system is tailored and revised to help them thrive.

Schaub: “He just has such a great feel for what a defense is doing and how we can counteract it. It’s one thing to recognize it. But to be able to attack it the next play or the next series, not wait. We do so much with formations and motions from week to week, that is a great help for attacking defenses and he has a great feel for how to do that but still keep our concepts the same. It’s nothing new for us, we just have to learn where our spots are and then run our plays.”

Foster: “I think he’s a guru. As his career progresses he’ll get a lot more notoriety for what he’s able to do in this league and what he’s able to see out there. I just think his offensive mind is up there with the best of them. He’s one of the best chess players I’ve ever seen, I don’t know how much that means with me saying it. I’m not saying that just because he’s my head coach. I like to take my emotions out of any opinion that I have. And I feel like he’s one of the best out there offensively.”

Johnson: “He’s great at what he does. He does a good job of game-planning against things they see on film, finding little mismatches here and there. For me, he’s helped my career out a lot. Just moving me around. Before he got here, I just pretty much stayed in one place, I was the split end, the X receiver. When he got here, they just started moving me around a lot trying to find ways to get me the ball.”

The thing that strikes me most about Kubiak’s play calling is his ability to find the right moments for deep shots. The Texans will run inside. But their bread-and-butter is the zone stretch play, where Foster tests a defense going wide as the line moves laterally. He then potentially finds a cut back lane.

As defenders get used to flowing to the ball carrier and start to get a feel for getting off those blocks, Schaub will run play-action and fake the handoff to Foster. And while the defense starts to flow to the ball carrier again, the quarterback will have rolled the other way, reset with pass-rushers chasing him from a distance, and have time to loft a pass to a receiver who’s broken open.

With 22 players on the field, the Texans will have reduced the play to Schaub’s throw beating the first rusher to chase him down and Johnson or another receiver likely taking on just one defensive back.

It can be beautiful.

Houston veteran center Chris Myers said Kubiak’s chess game “is pretty magnificent to watch.”

It’s a great system for Schaub, who’s back from a serious foot injury. He’s developed a very close relationship with Kubiak and this will be their sixth year together. Not the most mobile quarterback, Schaub is completely comfortable running the bootlegs and rollouts that are so vital to what the Texans do.

“As a quarterback, you love it because of the diversity of it,” Elway said. “The defense really can’t sit and tee off on anything. With the zone concept that they developed with Mike [Shanahan] while they were here in Denver and now in Houston, I think it really puts a lot of pressure on the defense …”

“And very rarely do you see any negative yardage plays in the running game. Very rarely do you see a second-and-12. When you’re trying to run the football on first down, there is always positive yardage with it.”

[+] EnlargeArian Foster
Don McPeak/US Presswire"I just think his offensive mind is up there with the best of them," Arian Foster said of his coach.
Houston averaged a league-best 6.57 yards on first down last year. Second-and-3.43 is a dream down for anyone on any offense in any football league.

So what’s the downside to Houston’s offense? I admit it’s hard to find something negative while working on a piece like this and to find someone, even with no name attached, to pick apart a guy like Kubiak.

ESPN.com's Matt Williamson said he likes Kubiak more as offensive coordinator than head coach. Asked what he did not like about Kubiak’s offense, Williamson offered this:

“Well, generally, the offensive line is undersized and relies on quickness and leverage. That can be a problem when trying to grind out the tough yards or simply trying to out-muscle the opponent. I also think it is telling that Kubiak really only features one wide receiver -- and everyone knows it. They have not put a premium on finding a wide receiver opposite Johnson because that isn’t a featured player in their offense.”

Kubiak’s work last year got him an extension that runs through 2014.

He could have gotten a longer deal, but he lined up with his assistants and joked with owner Bob McNair about how much more he will be worth the next time he’s talking contract.

As an offense-minded coach, he’s pretty much given coordinator Wade Phillip complete control of the Texans' defense, a unit that made a huge leap last season.

That doesn’t suggest, however, that Kubiak doesn’t have a good feel for the other side of the ball.

“You have to understand what defenses are doing and once you do, you’re able to attack them and he has a great feel for that,” Elway said. “That to me is what separates good head coaches and good offensive coordinators from great ones -- the fact that they have a knack for the right call at the right time, that they are aggressive at the right time, they know on third-and-1 when to throw and when to run.

“It’s an innate knack that separates the good ones from the great ones. And Gary has that.”

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